Reputation management and the anonymous monsters of Higher Education

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Golden Universities

I absolutely love higher education, in principle. I really buy into the idea of it: that you have a group of people of unquenchable curiosity, whose job it is to work together to dig into the social and physical world and share their knowledge with students, their colleagues, and the public. It revolves around thinking about and understanding the world as well as we can, from social morals to the zinging of invisible particles, from open heart surgery to what love means, and anything and everything in between. The possibilities are, literally, infinite. Universities preserve and analyse historical and contemporary culture, do work that saves human and non-human lives, provide what can be an enormously fulfilling life for scores of employees, and offer students the opportunity to develop their minds and access different kinds of jobs.

Turdular Universities

On the flipside, in practice, there is a fair amount in universities to dislike. They’re not necessarily guilty of all of the things they’re always accused of, but they are not necessarily shining visions of wondrousness, either. They magnify social inequality by channelling affluent, white, male, able-bodied students higher into the job market than people who don’t fit into those categories. They’re often exclusive in several ways, being ageist, sexist, racist, snobbish, familyist, and so on; a lot of the knowledge they create is also not accessible to the outside world and there can be brutal competition between researchers. They can be incredibly toxic places to study and work.

Some of this toxicity is down to how universities are governed through numbers, and this works from the outside as well as the inside. Externally, various kinds of measurements on university rankings and other ‘assessment exercises’ can be helpful in some ways but are also problematic – I’ve written about this a fair bit. When it comes to internal management, if you’re employing scores of staff and teaching thousands of students, there must be some kind of organisational system otherwise there’d be chaos. But if the system is overly prescriptive, based on misleading numbers, and driven by always increasing improving the machine’s performance, then the components (i.e. staff and students) will suffer. You can’t permanently keep your foot on the floor, expecting the car to go faster and faster – you’ll either run out of road or the engine will lunch itself. There is increasing and justified concern this is what is happening, and staff and students are in the firing line.

I’m not Spartacus. No, me neither.

Pretty much all of the problems are known about and the evidence is out there. There is  piles and piles of research in and around universities that shows that, why, and often how, significant problems exist and are maintained or even made worse. It’s also important to note that we can back up the golden sides of the argument, too; if that wasn’t the case, there’d be less people working there, but as it is, a lot of people become disillusioned and leave. Whether the glass is half empty or half full depends to some extent on who you are, where you’re working or studying, and where you are in your career. But if the problems in higher education are so well-documented, and genuinely systematic, then why are things not really getting any better? One part of this is because we often can’t identify (or can’t say) exactly who’s behaving badly.

When you do academic research with people, it’s standard practice for those people to be anonymous. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. It’s an underlying principle of research ethics that the people who take part in studies aren’t made to feel uncomfortable, and can’t be identified by anyone else. This anonymity means that people feel less wary of taking part in your study and are more likely to talk to you, and talk honestly – they’re not going to be so open if they know their boss or colleague is reading the transcript. We’re not looking to name and shame people, it’s more about seeing how people see and experience the world, what kinds of issues are out there, and hopefully how we can address them. If someone admits to seriously breaking the law or of there’s a case of people being in danger, then you’re duty-bound to pass that on, and you make that clear at the outset. However, tied in with this, is that universities (at least in places like the the UK) often don’t allow you to undertake research within them unless you make it organisationally anonymous, and this is because Reputation is King.

Cherry-pickers

Universities, particularly as they are forced to compete with each other, are hyper-aware of how they look to the outside world. League tables are part of this, and universities are driven towards constantly improving their performance according to these metrics – that’s their point. There’s even a reputation ranking, which is about as akin to a dog chasing its own tale as you can get. Whenever a ranking’s annual results comes out, senior leadership and marketing teams scroll through to cherry-pick and publicise the bits they like. On the occasions when they’re not doing well, the default position it is to ignore it (or say that the ranking methodology is flawed if it makes the news). They don’t bitch about them when they come out top, though. Public image is seen as essential – if a university looks good, people will want to work for them, they’ll get more research funding, and students will want to study there. Some are more bullet-proof to scandal than others: if students Harvard and Yale were miserable, it wouldn’t matter so much to their recruitment because people know that they get major kudos for having those places’ degrees on their CVs. Other universities don’t have that ‘luxury’ and so have to tread very carefully.

The upshot of this is that universities seem to be terrified of bad news, and when these things do transpire, the PR exercises swing into action, or they try to sweep it under the carpet. National statistics give you some of the story on spending, vice chancellor salaries, or inequalities in the student and staff populations. Headlines on Oxbridge admissions make headlines every year, for example. The default response is that they’re working hard to open up, and it’s not their fault that the education system is unfair. Sort of true, but it’s a dodge, a very partial answer to the question. And then you have other things that happen under the radar and never see the light of day. Imagine that a senior member of staff, a professor or member of the leadership team, is caught in the act of impropriety with their literal or financial pants down. The ‘best’ thing for the university to do would be to deal with the whole thing quietly, which they could potentially do unless the police were involved and the story was leaked. If it’s kept hush-hush, then that person could go on to work somewhere else. Hearsay within the sector can come too late: ‘oh no, you’re not working with them…didn’t you know? Everyone else does.’ Whistleblowing can be a great way of losing your job, and unequal power relations ensure that calling out the monsters is ‘disincentivised’, and this allows people to get away with it, and maybe do it again.

Problems and Solution

So there are two problems here. The first is that running a large organisation of any kind leads to reducing issues and people to numbers in some way, and if you start to see those things simply as numbers, then it can mask the real issues and effects of optimising performance. The second problem is that there is always a shit somewhere in the system, but it can be very difficult to call him out. (Yes, it’s almost certainly a him.) When you combine these two within a fundamental principle of preserving organisational reputations – rather than social and mental health – then the human outcomes can’t be good. If anything, the answer is to develop a real culture of accountability, not so much around productivity, but around more rounded, fair, and considered outcomes. That counts as much for the anonymous organisational monsters as much as the individual ones.

 

 

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Posted in Access to Uni, Early Career Academia, Rankings | Leave a comment

A ‘real’ example of Grade Inflation

 

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As with every year, it seems, the newspapers are filled with stories about ‘grade inflation’ at universities. The accusation is that we’re are wantonly generous in our grading, in part because the percentage of students who get an upper second or higher – i.e. a B or A grade – is included some university rankings. National figures do indeed show that many universities are awarding more in these two categories, year on year. The issue is deemed important enough to be built into the national Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that assesses universities’ teaching processes (not teaching!). This is to discourage us from gaming the system by simply awarding better grades to raise our ranking positions.

A Case in Point?

Let’s have a look at an example of what might be seen as grade inflation. ‘I’ve got a friend’ who took over a final year undergraduate dissertation course a few years ago. The students are studying off campus at an FE college, are generally mature (in their mid-20s to early 40s) and ethnically diverse, and have relatively weak academic credentials on paper; as such they often have low confidence in their own intellects. Most of them work full time and/or have family commitments, but they’re completing a degree full-time, mostly over evenings and weekends. This group is an exception in the system, since when tuition fees went up in 2012, mature students more or less vanished from UK higher education. Statistically, this kind of student is more likely to drop out of their degrees or just about creak through. On the course in question, students were getting an average of around 55% for their research projects year on year.

My friend was in a position to reshape the course because the time allocated to teaching it had been changed, and this meant that much of the teaching content had to be adapted or substantially changed anyway. The sessions were made more like workshops, based around discussions and practical exercises that related to doing the research and addressing the potential issues that could arise around ethics, participant recruitment, and so on. The reading lists were bumped up and other additional materials were added, too.

All Firsts Aren’t Equal

Around the same time, the external examiner on the course pointed out that there were few marks in previous cohorts over 70, the bottom mark for a first (an A). (All UK courses have an external examiner, an academic from another university, who reviews the course every year as a critical friend.) This tendency to award low 70s may partly have lain in the fact that most of the staff went through university when grades were less important. Fifteen to twenty years ago, a first was a first was a first, and where you pitched it was sort of irrelevant as grades mattered less on the labour market, and simply having a degree was sufficient to get access to graduate jobs. A more recent phenomenon is that students seem to need an upper second or higher to be considered for just about anything. In practice, there is variation in really good work, so why not reward it appropriately? Fair point.

Self-Marking

In addition to writing new materials, expanding the course resources, and actively encouraging students to engage with their supervisors, an exercise was introduced whereby students were required to assess a previous research project which had done  well. It wasn’t a perfect piece of work, but it was well-executed and very clearly written up. Research shows that marking work can help students in a number of ways, and it actually made quite a difference.

  • Firstly, it demystified the nature of what a good research report looks like. This is particularly important for final year projects: at 8,000 words, the dissertation is by far the largest piece of work they’ll have done, and it’s therefore pretty daunting for many. You can explain how it works and provide examples of projects for them to flick through, but actually requiring them to read one in depth really brought those explanations to life;
  • Secondly, it made students look very closely at the marking criteria. Those for the research project are slightly different to the usual assignments, with additional sections around the literature review, research design, analysis, and so on. This encouraged them to think about – and apply – the differences between the different grade bands, giving a clearer idea of how work was judged;
  • Finally, there is evidence that shows that some students can lack the ability to critically review their own work. We as academics have to learn how to do it – if we don’t, it reduces our chances of publishing journal articles and books – you have to pre-empt where reviewers might pull you up. Marking another project therefore helped the students make real connections between the marking criteria and their own work.

This, along with providing a final checklist of what supervisors were looking for when they assessed the final reports, explicitly let students know how they could do well. Not all of them picked these things up, and many of them only picked up parts, but the students did report finding this enormously helpful. Bearing in mind the advice of the external examiner, staff also awarded grades in the 80s and sometimes 90s if the work deserved it, and a sample was cross-marked to ensure that standards were equally applied (this is standard practice). At the end of the year, the overall average was up in the mid to high 60s, and has stayed there ever since.

So, this grade inflation?

Now this is where the grade inflation issue comes to life. The final year research project is the most important piece of work because it requires students to put into practice what they’ve been learning over the course of their degrees. In credit terms, the grade also carries a lot of weight which means that it has major implications for the final degree classification. In other words, doing well on your research project can do wonders for your overall grade, and this was evident for quite a few students, as the cohorts subsequently did better than in previous years.

Through improving the teaching, more focused guidance, and fairer grading, students were given more of an opportunity to do really well and be suitably rewarded, and they did, in the main. From the outside, lazy assumptions (and the Teaching Excellence Framework) would identify what looked like grade inflation, when what was happening was that academics were doing their jobs better. Why is the default position of the media and policy makers in the face of rising grades that standards are being relaxed, when in fact what we may be seeing is the opposite?

 

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How to (better) solve inequalities in university access.

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Keble College, Oxford. Why are some social groups permanently frozen out of ‘elite’ universities?

No surprises…

A recent study has ranked universities based on how well their student bodies represent the UK population as a whole. The results essentially turn other university league tables on their heads, as they tend to be weighted towards research, retention, employability, and, crucially, entry standards. This new approach offers a different perspective of ‘best’ by framing it around social justice, at least in terms of admitting people from across the social spectrum; post-degree outcomes are a different matter. The usual ‘elite’ suspects nearly all languish at the bottom, while the so-called ‘weaker’ universities have come out smelling of roses. In a way there are no real surprises here, and the findings essentially reflect what many people have known/suspected for some time, it’s just that nobody has crunched and presented the data in this particular way before. Universities like Cambridge, Bristol, and so on, are the most academically ‘choosy’, which means that they are coincidentally, accidentally – or perhaps even intentionally – socially selective in that they admit very few people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This issue has been observed and discussed for over 50 years now: those from better educated and wealthier families will do better at school, go to more highly ranked universities, and this means that they go on to get better jobs, even though there’s no evidence that they’re actually better workers. In short, if you’re white, male, middle class, straight, and not disabled, then you’ll probably be more successful and paid more than someone who isn’t all – or any – of those things. Notice that I’ve not mentioned ‘ability’ or ‘talent’ in any of this. We’re encouraged to buy into the idea of innate talent far too quickly, that the best simply do better. It’s not to say that successful people haven’t worked hard – most of them will have done – but it’s important to accept that luck also plays a major role. I’m a beneficiary of this ‘arrangement’, too… Some people are born with more of a head start than others, and are therefore much closer to the finish line when the starting gun goes off. There are exceptions, but we must remember that exceptions don’t prove that the system is fair – for every Oprah Winfrey, there are a lot of Donald Trumps, and those Oprahs will have had to work far harder than the Donalds.

What’s the Answer? Quotas!

I’m increasingly convinced that the best solution is to introduce quotas, otherwise known as ‘positive discrimination’. What this means is that universities set particular figures for admissions to ensure that their student intake reflects wider society, rather than expecting wider society to do equally well at school. This is simply not going to happen. People shy away quotas for several reasons, even those who are more likely to benefit from them. Let’s look at why they’re unpopular.

  • ‘Social Engineering’

Moves to equalise pay rates or participation levels across social groups are often met with the accusation that we’re engaging in ‘social engineering’. The implication here is that we’re undermining the natural state of things. That is, that in the jungle it’s survival of the fittest, and if you mess with this, the ecosystem falls apart: organisations won’t do as well if they have to put underqualified people into posts rather than those who have the best credentials. This looks like common sense, but in fact it falls apart quite quickly based on two fundamental observations.

Firstly, the system as it stands is not natural, it’s social: it’s a man-made situation (literally, as in largely created by and for males) and those in the lead want to stay there. Saying that their advantages are simply the result of evolution is a way of pretending that they’re brighter than they probably are! The same argument goes for markets – the idea that markets or elections (and referendums!) simply reflect the average will of the people is nonsense. They are created by people, with legislation, and there’s a great deal of horse play, manipulation, and misinformation in advertising and politics that goes on before and after they are set up. This means that we’re rarely choosing exactly what we want because we aren’t perfectly informed and what we’d like to have probably isn’t available. Systems are made by people, for people, and the outcomes are never even.

Secondly, the natural evolution argument rests on the assumption that there aren’t (and never will be) enough qualified people from other social groups. This is fundamental racism, sexism, and snobbery. There may currently be less Black, working class women with Oxbridge degrees, City internships, and MBAs, but there aren’t none. Crucially, the reason for their present minority status is a long-term lack of genuine opportunities (not a lack of ability or aspiration); people outside the dominant groups in any industry (or subject area) are implicitly and explicitly discouraged from following certain career paths. You could argue that qualified people from minorities are likely to be better than their white, middle class, male counterparts because they’ve almost certainly had to work harder – and be better – to get as far. This evolutionary claim is the same false principle that underpins ability streaming in schools or the claims of ‘dumbing down’ in universities. Educational tests are not accurate measures of actual potential – you can’t take society out of any test – but they’re a system we’re stuck with for now. This means that we need to work around them.

In general terms, every single policy – educational or otherwise – that affects social groups in different ways creates or maintains an artificial situation. Policies which preserve the (unequal) status quo are maintaining those unnatural advantages, and this is therefore a form of social engineering in itself. The same goes for things that we don’t have policies on – it’s a choice not to try and change something. Let’s accept that social engineering is part and parcel of policy, and where it makes society fairer, it’s a good thing!

  • Charity Cases

When I taught on this topic a few months ago, I was surprised to see how many of my students were resistant to the idea that they might be given a leg up – a place on a course, or a job – over someone with similar credentials from a more advantaged social group. This could, for example, take the form of admitting someone from a poorer neighbourhood, with less educated and less affluent parents, who has slightly weaker grades, rather than someone else with marginally better grades but from a wealthier, more educated background. This is known in the US as positive discrimination, and in the UK as contextual admissions. It’s quite common practice, as it happens, but seems to be weakly applied in the UK, at least by the ‘top’ universities. I’ll get to this in a minute.

In principle, my students accepted (and railed vehemently against) the well-evidenced state of affairs in the UK (and globally) around education, crime, health, and so on, that sees the odds very much stacked against certain social groups. They can see that a lot of policy is inherently racist, sexist, ableist, and classist, as the outcomes disfavour certain kinds of people. They unanimously agreed that we needed to make major changes to national-level social policies such as abolishing ability streaming in classrooms, more generous funding for schools, healthcare and the justice system, less constricting and punitive social benefits, redistributive taxation, and so on. But when these things were applied at the individual rather than the system level, they baulked. They said they wouldn’t want to be labelled as a ‘charity case’, as having not earned their place. They wanted to be admitted on merit, even though they know that, if they’re from a working class background, their chances of achieving equal merit on paper are potentially far lower than for their more affluent peers.

This, I think, is evidence of ‘cognitive dissonance’, where people hold simultaneous views which conflict. We all suffer from this to varying degrees, and it stems from the fact that the same logic isn’t applied to every situation in society. We absorb a great deal of information and arguments around topics as we go along, through the media, conversations, reading, doing research, and often don’t notice when arguments or approaches contradict each other. So much of our ‘natural’ thinking revolves around the idea that talent leads directly to success that we’ve internalised it, even though there is overwhelming evidence to blow it out of the water. In a way we need to more strongly promote the view that the (white, male, middle class) people who dominate commerce, the professions, and public life, aren’t there on merit alone. If anything, they’re the charity cases as they’ve been given the nod ahead of people who are just as likely to be as good as them. If this underpinned our thinking more, then we might see positive discrimination, well, more positively.

Can Universities Solve the Problem?

Now we’re coming back to where we started. Governments ‘educationalise’ social inequality and other societal issues (like religious extremism and illegal immigration) by tasking schools and universities with solving it. This is passing the buck: as my students articulated, and as politicians are well aware, education alone can’t solve all social ills. We do see these inequalities playing out very clearly in education; in some cases education is making things worse. It can have a positive impact, too. But what can universities do? Before tuition fees were introduced, most people were awarded state grants, and these were retained for poorer students as fees came in. They’ve mostly been removed now, but if universities want to charge full fees (and they all do), then they have to have an ‘Access Agreement’. These have been around for over a decade (see here), and require that universities have a system in place for supporting poorer students and encouraging more to attend. This can involve scholarships or fee waivers, outreach work into poorer neighbourhoods, residential weekends for potential students, contextual admissions, and so on, but exactly what they do is up to the individual university. They have to be seen to be doing something, and showing that they’re making progress. So why, in spite of this work, are the numbers on equal participation still so poor?

One part is related to the education system itself, this lower likelihood of people from less advantaged backgrounds getting the necessary grades. The horse can’t get to the water, and universities can’t fix the pre-university education system as it stands. But they can bring the water to the horse. Many are already reducing the grade requirements for less affluent applicants but this (and their other approaches) aren’t having enough of an effect, as the figures show. This is probably because, even by setting disadvantaged applicants marginally lower entrance requirements, they’re still setting the bar too high. The outreach and so on will help, but in themselves they can’t take the society out of education – there’s evidence that people from certain backgrounds feel discouraged from applying to ‘posh’ universities. The universities, then, have to go further – keeping up the work they’re doing, but also establishing quotas, with a strong statement about why and how this is right. It’s about social engineering in the right way, and acknowledging that our so-called meritocracy needs a reboot. If you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors, giving a helping hand to people who deserve a leg up is simply the morally right thing to do.

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Neo – The University Data Manager

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Data: the life blood of the university.

As every day, Neo opened his eyes at 06:29, just before his alarm went off. Getting out of bed, he went downstairs, boiled the kettle to make tea, and prepared his porridge. 30g of oats, 75ml of milk (semi-skimmed), 15ml of water (tap), medium heat (two-thirds between 4 and 5 on the dial) for ten minutes, and a generous tablespoon of Golden Syrup to liven it up. After finishing his breakfast, he put on his suit (coordinating the colour of his shirt, tie, pants and socks) and left the house at 07:31 for the seven-and-a-half minute walk to the station.

Waiting on the platform, he noted with irritation that the 07:41 was delayed by three minutes – he’d have to pick up the pace at the other end to maintain his routine. He was thankful to get his usual seat, seeing in passing the familiar faces, mostly staring at the floor, their phones, or out of the window. Don’t make eye contact, that wouldn’t be British. Well except ‘Up North’, where he’d heard it was commonplace for strangers to speak to each other on public transport. Madness. The driver had fortunately made up a minute as he arrived at his station, but Neo knew he’d need to be brisk in order to make it to his desk for 08:20. He didn’t have to be in until nine, but it was always helpful to be up and running before his team of three sloped in. Carly was always cutting it fine, breezing in as the university’s clock chimed, and then disrupting the peace and quiet as she settled into her desk, made coffee, and told everyone about her love life and her ancient rabbit. He didn’t really care and was secretly looking forward to ‘Snuggles’ shuffling off his mortal coil, but he feigned interest in the interests of team harmony.

As was now habit, on entering the office, he filled his water bottle from the cooler as his computer came to life, hung up his coat, and then opened his email. There was the usual set of pronouncements from above about some internal research awards, a member of staff on ‘Midlands This Week’, and a new public lecture series on the ancient waterways of the Scottish Highlands. There was also, curiously, a request from a researcher in Education about how far students moved from home to the university. He wondered briefly why that would be of interest, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was that answering it was easy – they had everyone’s home addresses, and pulling that data into an anonymous spreadsheet would be a few minutes’ work. He’d see to it this afternoon.

Closing his email down – it was largely a distraction, noise in the background – he plugged himself into the real business of the day. The first stop after email was always the Virtual Learning Environment, or VLE. He could see that only 143 students – out of 8,256 – were logged in, and most of those hadn’t moved in hours. They’d probably been checking their timetables and had forgotten to log out. Still, it was early in the day, and they were just past a series of deadlines; activity was always down at this time of year. This probably meant that class attendances were down, too – he checked, they were, even on the last three years – and this was a perennial concern for senior management. They perplexingly made a direct connection between attendance and degree grades, and swiftly brought in a university-wide policy to enforce 100% attendance in all classes, even lectures. The latter had required an expensive new system where lecture theatres had to be kitted out with sensors to record the presence of students’ ID cards. The students had wised up pretty quickly, though, and it was only a matter of weeks before the numbers were down again and those that did attend had pockets or bags stuffed with their friends’ student cards. He’d even heard rumours that a racket had grown around it, with a particularly savvy student in Political Science making a small fortune out of coordinating attendances for a small fee.

Overall, it intrigued Neo how keen the university was to optimise every aspect of university life. In between the Finance Director, the Vice Chancellor, and the Associate Dean for Student Enjoyment, they frantically looked for every possible way to game the National Student Survey and any other metrics that were visible to the outside world. Most of them had nothing to do with improving teaching or student life, and recent research had shown that NSS scores had little to no effect on student recruitment anyway. The VC had read the paper, too, he knew, but his own confirmation bias had taken over and he’d rejected the findings out of hand, redoubling the university’s efforts to provide the best student support scores in the Northeast Southern Midlands. Academic staff were now expected to be on call 24 hours a day, and had to respond to any student enquiries within three rings of their mobile phones. Two years of this had made no difference to students’ grades, and staff morale was at an all-time low. The figures were not good news – sick leave was running at five times the sector average.

Every now and then, just out of curiosity, Neo presented the senior management team with the odd curve ball by sharing data on blatantly irrelevant correlations. Even though the VC was a former professor of statistics, he seemed to have entirely disconnected from his academic identity, and desperately clung on to any possible internal policy button that could be pressed to improve the data that appeared on the university league tables. Not long after he’d started, Neo had shared the observation (jokingly, he’d thought) that student participation in online forums was marginally better while ‘The Voice’ was running on ITV. For months afterwards, screens around the university had been peppered with clips from the programme and the VC had included his views on the assorted performances in his weekly message to students. The management were then baffled when there was no overall change in online engagement. The fact that ‘The Voice’ ran over the crunch times of main deadlines and so on had bypassed the entire senior team.

In spite of the nonsense and game-playing around the numbers, Neo found it fascinating to watch, through them, the ebb and flow of university life, the daily and annual rhythms of the campus. You could see so much of what was going on, from library access to coffee shop till receipts, or late night forum discussions and even students’ movements between student halls in the middle of the night. Organisations are like living organisms, and Neo sometimes felt like a physician, monitoring the health of the patient. It was clear that some of the treatments were no better than placebos, but the growth of – and appetite for – data management created jobs for him and his team. There were national and international conferences on it, and a new journal was coming out, too. He was planning on running a seminar with colleagues from a neighbouring university on knee-jerk responses to spurious correlations, but he’d have to call it something else or the university would get wind of it.

He was distracted momentarily by Carly bustling into the office. Snuggles was, sadly, still with us. He looked back at the graph which the monitoring system had just produced. It had red-flagged how the replacement rate for toasters in student halls was 3% above the global mean, and he pitied the Estates Team when they were drawn over the coals about it. He looked over his shoulder and surreptitiously fudged the data slightly. No point creating fuss about nothing.

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Why I’m (thankfully) not on strike

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You may have noticed that staff at about 60 universities in the UK are on strike. I’m not. Why are they striking? And why aren’t I?

Pensions

There have been rumblings over the past year or so that one of the pensions that many university staff belong to, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), is running at a deficit. That is, that there’s not enough money in the fund to pay pensions in the long run. They therefore want to change the current agreement to have staff a) pay more of their salaries in and b) not be guaranteed a certain income when they retire. I’m assuming that by the time I retire, there won’t be much of a state pension, if anything, so whatever my USS pays out will be more or less what we have to live on, unless I want my kids to look after us (I don’t). This is worrying stuff.

There’s always a trade-off in pensions, in that you ‘lend’ a portion of your wage packet and they invest it to try and ensure that the pot doesn’t lose value. But it’s important to remember that it’s not primarily an investment fund, but a bank account that holds the money you’ve paid in. Therefore the idea is that they go for steady investments, not big risky ones. Has this been misinvested – have they been losing our money? Where this becomes very murky is that all is not what it seems on the numbers front – and this always is a risk when you take on the most highly educated workforce in the country. Academics’ job is to dig into the complex details of life as we know it and see what’s going on. It seems that the claims of the deficit have been enormously exaggerated, and are based on an assumption that, if a lot of UK universities were to go bust at the same time, the pension fund would be in trouble. This, though, is essentially impossible. Admittedly it’s the biggest university by far, but Cambridge alone sits on its own assets of £4.5bn. Across the sector, not one university has gone to the wall in the last 1000 years, and the loss of even one of the smaller ones is unlikely in practice; even if it did happen, the shock to the USS would be negligible. Hmm.

Why aren’t I striking?

In short, I can’t. The strikes are being coordinated by one of the largest unions, the Universities and College Union (UCU). I’m a member of the UCU (and pay into the USS), and when it balloted its members, I said I’d not be willing to strike on this – the vast majority, though, said they would. In my defence, I was less savvy about the murkiness and dodgy numbers, I was trusting in the USS pronouncements, perhaps many people were – and that was probably the point. Now, I’d feel duty-bound to strike. However, most of the staff at my university (and most of the newer universities) are on a different pension, the TPS, the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, and so the union says that we’re therefore not expected to strike. If I did, I’d be out of a job. For those at the universities which are striking, they can’t be sacked as it’s within their employment rights to do so.

On a practical level, I’m glad I’m not on strike because I can’t afford to be. I’m between that proverbial rock and a hard place, as in the long run, I couldn’t afford not to strike if I had the option to. I’ve finally got my financial head above water for the first time in ten years, and you get deducted pay for every day you’re not at work. If my pay cheque went down, we – as in me and my family – would be struggling again. It’s worth remembering that striking staff are losing money. If the strike has its intended effect and the suggested changes don’t go through, and it’ll be worth it as academics won’t be starving to death in their retirement, but it also creates a real financial pain for them now. Also, and this is crucial, a lot of professors who are on strike aren’t affected by these changes because they have a different pension arrangement. Their salaries are high enough that losing a few weeks of pay shouldn’t be excessively painful, too. However, they’re showing solidarity on principle that this pensions fudge is wrong, and are standing up for the interests of their junior colleagues and the system as a whole. Having said that, other academics who are in weaker financial and employment positions than me are having the guts to strike, which is amazing. In short, others are fighting my (collective) corner for me, which is humbling.

But what about the students?

Whenever teachers strike, the government invariably comes out with a line about them letting the pupils down. The thing is, striking is the absolute last resort, nobody wants to do this, and it breaks people’s hearts – and, of course, finances – to be forced into this position. If staff felt supported, wanted, and suitably remunerated, we wouldn’t be where we are. Students seem to know this and appear to be largely on our side, which puts the universities in a trickier position than they may have expected.  Things might look quite different if it was academics (and support staff) ‘versus’ students. Also, the pensions dispute comes on top of a lot of changes in universities and the public sector in general that people don’t like – I’ve blogged about the moral panics in the media around universities, on tuition fees, student employability, early academic careers, rankings, and so on at length. Why haven’t there been strikes on these? Is this academics only thinking about themselves? I doubt it – we’re all in this together. Some of this is about the unions – they ballot, and strikes only go ahead if the collective will is there, but maybe the pensions issue is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The sector certainly is under the cosh. Higher education is not all bad (in spite of what some may think), although it does have its faults, and there are signs that the strike and conversations on the picket lines are reminding people why they love working in universities

Of course, while staff are on strike, the students aren’t being taught. This is, interestingly, is one place where (high) tuition fees are potentially coming to bite the government and universities in the bum. Because students in England pay the full cost (and then some) of their degrees, there’s a perception that they’re being short-changed, aren’t able to study as well. There have been moves to seek compensation, or money back, which is not something that the university finances want to deal with. It’s not really happened before, not for these kinds of reasons. Also, in practice, while some classes are being cancelled, at the same time a lot of university study is the students working things out for themselves, so the overall disruption is minimal. (For a look at the legal situation here, the brilliant Smita Jamdar has written this.) There are also ‘teach-outs’, where public lectures on a range of subjects are being held by staff. The strikes, though, make the timing of the National Student Survey tricky, as university reputations and external ratings are in part calculated on this. There’s a sense, though, that the NSS is of less interest to the highest status universities as their reputations are strong enough to survive student dissatisfaction – they’ll never be short of applicants.

So, I’m not striking, but I should be. I’m glad I’m not, but I also wish I was. If it really does go down to the wire and I have the option to, then I must.

P.S. If you’re not striking/can’t strike, but want to show solidarity, what can you do?

  • For colleagues/staff on strike, don’t email them. Their inboxes will be overflowing with the usual detritus of university life anyway, so give them a break;
  • Take to social media: tweet, retweet, like, and comment on tweets and posts with the #USSStrikes hashtag;
  • Honk your horn to show your support when you drive past any pickets;
  • Cancel your subscription to alumni funds, particularly if it’s Oxbridge (who seem to have started the whole thing off – see the Michael Otsuka blog, below) or Leeds, and tell them about it;
  • Show up to swell numbers;
  • Make tea/coffee and biscuits and deliver them to the picket lines;
  • If you can, donate to the UCU fighting fund, which helps people who can least afford to strike;
  • Brace yourselves. If the changes to the USS pension go ahead, then your pot will be next. Of course, if you worked for BHS, then it’s already been plundered.

For a tiny selection of what is an enormous range of truly excellent blogs out there on the strikes, try these:

 

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The Golden Age of The University

University Life

Solving the world’s problems, one cheese at a time.

The Professor paused to conjure up an obscure metaphor for the letter he was writing to the local paper about the proposed Gypsy Traveller camp on the (opposite, thankfully) edge of his Berkshire village. Leaning back, he laid his Mont Blanc pen – a gift from his grandfather on graduating from Sussex – on the desk and belched gently. Taking a sip of  tea to try and mask the taste of the sardines from lunch that had risen with the belch, he gazed across his library, through the dust motes cavorting in the beam from the (original) Anglepoise lamp. His eyes settled on the section of shelving reserved for his own books. There was a gap at the end that bothered him; he must fill it – he was sure there was another book lurking in him somewhere. But what? What remained to be said? There was an elusive spark, a glimpse of something at the back of his mind, and then it came into view – yes, that was it: The Golden Age of the University.

It would, of course, have to be an historical account. Higher education in this country (or globally, for that matter) wasn’t what it used to be. He could sweep across the 20th Century but focus on the peak, the three decades before Thatcherism really took hold, and before student numbers exploded under Blair. He’d done well at the local grammar school, earnt his place at Sussex. There were far too many students nowadays, and the cachet of having a degree – even a doctorate – had been watered down. Higher education was, he mused, less of a rich claret and more of a mid-ranged bottle of plonk: drinkable for the masses, but not suited to the palate of the genuine connoisseur.

He was glad he was on the outside now, not that he’d ever really considered himself an insider. He’d been emeritus for three years, giving the odd keynote if the conference location was to his liking, or writing occasional blue skies papers and excoriating book reviews. That was enough, just to keep his hand in and mind active – and to remind people that he was still there and still ‘had it’. He chuckled inwardly at the sudden recollection of Jim Whattinger, a colleague in Politics who’d written every other undergraduate lecture to be completely impenetrable to the students. Jim had quietly sent a memo to staff and junior researchers in advance, advising them of the date and time. They’d all sit at the back of the lecture theatre, enjoying the panicked or forlorn looks on the students’ faces as they failed to comprehend the language games being played on them.

Why had he thought of Jim? Oh yes, because you couldn’t get away with that now. Students had to be ‘happy’ all the time or they made representations to the university which kowtowed to their every whim. He and a select few of his colleagues had seen the writing on the wall early on. Students had started to take their foot off the gas, becoming lazy as fees kicked in. Now they expected everything to be done for them, no longer happy to work hard to develop their minds. They were oversensitive and entitled, thinking only about needless consumption and graduate jobs. When he was a student, going to university had meant something – it wasn’t about work, it was about debating (often over cheese and crackers) about how they could change the world. He’d dabbled in a bit of protest when in Paris by chance in ’68, living on the pittance of his maintenance grant, topped up with the odd bit of help from home. It wasn’t quite like The Young Ones, but it wasn’t far off. The students of today wanted private, en-suite accommodation, piling up debts they’d never need to repay. They had no idea what it was like to have to make ends meet on a budget.

Academic life was different, too. Management had taken over, squeezing the academic enterprise dry, measuring everything to within an inch of its life. There was no more time for staring out of the window, listening to the whirr of the paternoster down the hall while wrestling with the ideas of French philosophers. He still read the odd paper when he saw one he liked the look of, but they were mostly anodyne, talking about social and economic impact. There was no love of knowledge for its own sake any more. Back in the day, they’d been the trailblazers of their time, writing a dazzling book every few years that twisted literary styles inside out. They’d jousted with each other using terminology pilfered from Greek and Latin as their lances and shields, giddy in the joy and certainty of their own playful cleverness. Someone had joked at the time that they were British higher education’s Knights of the Round Table. Hubris, of course, but he let his thoughts wander self-indulgently to wonder which knight he might have been. He’d always liked the swashbuckling Lancelot, although the affair with Guinevere took some of the shine off it. Not what one does, go for another man’s wife, is it. He’d had a fling with that doctoral student (what was her name, was it Emily?) he’d supervised until he called the relationship off. She’d taken it badly, but they were both consenting adults, and he’d heard that she was a moderately successful academic in her own right now. No harm done.

Where had it all gone wrong? It was almost as if he looked up and the whole university system was different from one minute to the next. He’d been knee-deep in big projects in the latter stages of his career, pulling in hundreds of thousands in grants every year to keep the university’s ravenous accountants and promotion panels happy. He’d been savvy with the funding, though, making it stretch further by employing part-time post-docs to do the legwork. As was his right, he took first author on shared publications. Those were the rules of the game and he’d done his time as an exploited researcher after completing his own doctorate. He did write a well-received (and widely tweeted) article about inequality in the academic labour market for the Times Higher, but didn’t want to have the black mark of troublemaker on his CV. This meant that, for the last seven years of full-time work, he’d been able to split his time between two excellent universities. Both had been desperate to pay him through the nose for his name and world-class publications to boost their league table positions. No point looking a gift horse in the mouth, and those salaries had been earned on merit.

He looked down and caught a glimpse of his watch: 5pm already – about time for a sundowner. Port, probably – sherry wouldn’t kill off the still lingering taste of the sardines. He could, thankfully, still afford the quality stuff, no need to stoop to that ersatz rubbish from German discount supermarkets. The mortgage had been paid off a decade ago, the winter fuel payment saved them a bit of money (as did the bus pass), and being on a final salary pension helped. The book would have to wait.

 

 

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Are Universities Guilty as Charged?

sunset

As the sun has set on 2017, are universities really as bad as they’ve been made out to be?

2017 was an annus horribilis for universities. They’ve come in for a lot of flak and this has the sector feeling under fire. I’m all for picking holes in the way that higher education works – it’s my job to think about this – as it allows us to look at ways of making improvements. However, many of the stories that made the news are smoke and mirrors, and deflect the attention away from more important issues (most of which relate to number 6). Here’s a round-up of the main stories from 2017 and why (most of them) are less important than the amount of words wasted on them.

1: Universities are out of touch. 

Not guilty (any more).

2: Degrees aren’t value for money.

Not guilty.

3: University Leaders are on ‘fat cat’ salaries.

Not guilty.

4: Academics have a three-month summer holiday.

Not guilty. (Although I wish we were)

5. Universities point-blank refuse to offer two-year degrees. 

Not guilty.

6. Universities are deeply discriminatory and hot-beds of harassment.

Guilty.

7. Universities Limit Free Speech

Not guilty

The Verdict, Your Honour? Six out of seven cases for the prosecution have been thrown out, with limited grounds for appeal. The one that we’re failing on is certainly partly our fault – we (and pretty much everyone else) have to hold our hands up and do much, much, better. So what is behind these attacks on higher education if much of the accusations are unfounded in practice? No social/political activity smoke is created without fire, and there seem to be concerted statements from politicians, lobbying groups (and their pet newspapers) to sway public opinion. Sometimes the headline or the accusation lasts in the collective memory even if the case is thrown out, and maybe that’ll happen here. What I think is going on is that we’re being primed for future changes – not that there haven’t been a lot in the last few years. But if you unsettle and divide universities, students, and academics, it makes them easier to manipulate. A major review of funding and governance in higher education has been threatened for some time, and the government is desperate to introduce more competition through existing universities varying their fees, and allowing for-profit universities into the market.  In short, they’re tenderizing the meat.

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Free Speech threatened in Higher Education?

Snowflake

‘The problem is, universities are bloody full of snowflakes these days. Wasn’t like that in my time, by jove!’

Sensitive Snowflakes?

There were strident calls from politicians towards the end of the 2017 for universities to maintain free speech, which of course implies that they haven’t been. The ‘problem’, so it goes, is that certain (political) perspectives are being shut down or excluded from campuses by ‘sensitive snowflake’ students.

This snowflake moniker has been applied to Generation Y – the so-called Millennials – those born between about the mid-90s and mid-2000s. The accusation is that ‘the youth of today’ has had it so easy that they feel entitled to everything in return for no effort, and are unwilling to face up to ideas that might challenge or unsettle (i.e. melt) them. This accusation is justified by denigrating student protest movements such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and what’s known as ‘no-platforming’, and by citing the rising numbers of students seeking counselling. I’ll come to the ‘justifications’ in a minute, but it’s first worth looking at the foundations on which Generation Y rests.

There is some weight behind the observation that Millennials could be more vulnerable than previous generations. They leave university with significant volumes of debt, something their predecessors did not. Coupled with this, the stable careers, predictable pensions, mid-sixties retirement age, and affordable house prices enjoyed by the post-war baby boomers are a thing of the past. Generation Y’s future looks far less promising and predictable than it did for their grandparents. Until recently, they’ve been pretty much ignored by politicians, too. If you throw in political issues like populism, rising social inequality, Brexit (something most young voters in the UK polled against) and climate change, it’s pretty hard to get excited about the next seventy years unless you’re already very wealthy.

#RhodesMustFall et al

Rhodes Must Fall was a movement that started in South Africa where students protested against the presence on their campus of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the founder of what is now Zimbabwe. The protest spread to other universities in South Africa, and then to the University of Oxford, where Rhodes studied (briefly) and established a scholarship scheme that still runs today. Rhodes Must Fall is an aspect of a growing awareness and activism against white supremacy – different to the outright racism of the KKK – where the political (and legal, and educational etc) system as it stands is oriented around white, male, middle class values and success. This can also be seen from a cultural perspective where university curricula are dominated by European, white, male thinkers. Black – and other minority – opportunities, experiences, perspectives are, they feel being marginalised or ignored. Is this oversensitive snowflake behaviour? I’d disagree – unless you accepted a whitewashed (i.e. clean, benevolent) view of the British Empire, there’s plenty of justification for this. If anything, they’re trying to open up a broader conversation, not close one down.

No Platform

‘No platforming’ refers to instances where students have militated against certain people being able to give lectures at universities. Two of the best-known cases are Milo Yiannopoulos, an ‘alt-right’ anti-feminist, and the feminist academic Germaine Greer. Both sit at pretty different ends of the political spectrum, but students protested that their views on certain topics were offensive and as such should be not be aired. This starts to head into a grey area, as people’s sensitivity to topics varies. In principle, it’s important to hear perspectives that you might disagree with, to understand why people might have different viewpoints to you. It allows you both interrogate yours – and their understanding – and to work through counter-arguments. This is an essential part of being at university and of being academic, constantly reviewing what is thought and known. At the same time, there has to be a measure of quality – any position must be justified by reason and evidence – unsubstantiated vitriol is unwelcome. There is also no place for inciting violence or hate crimes, and there are already laws around that. Within the ground rules, though, universities should be safe spaces for having unsettling conversations. Provided a talk comes with health warnings, and attendance is voluntary, then surely just about anything goes? In practice, there have been few cases of no-platforming, but they’ve made big news where it does happen, and it gets wrapped up in the snowflake stereotype.

Counselling

There is evidence that Millenials are more likely to seek counselling than previous generations. Is this a sign of weakness? Perhaps not – we live in a time where our awareness of, and attention to, mental health issues is far greater than it has been, and the stigma around seeking help are slowly falling away. There is also more support than there used to be, which is a good thing. The notion that we should ‘man up’ and maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of any diversity creates huge problems, particularly for men who’ve felt they had to live like that, and for many people associated with them. When you also factor in the social, economic, and political conditions that current students find themselves in, with potentially bleak futures and a heavy burden of debt (which many of them protested against), it’s unsurprising that many of them are feeling the pinch. I would.

All in, there’s no real evidence for that Millenials protest against the slightest thing, get blown over by trivialities, or that universities are shutting down freedom of speech. The real irony here is that many of these accusations circulate in media outlets, fanned by groups that themselves are doing their best to shut down conversations by denigrating or omitting alternative perspectives. As they say, if you point the finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.

 

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Universities are Sexist, Snobbish, and Racist

Matric

Anyone here who’s less deserving of their success than someone else? Almost certainly…

Perhaps the most ‘positive’ development in 2017, through discussions triggered by the Harvey Weinstein and extended revelations, was the explosion of awareness of the ways in which sexual discrimination and harassment are built into our current society. It’s a sad indictment that it requires scandals and disasters to grab people’s attention, but perhaps it was ever thus. Discrimination and harassment often operate invisibly due to the fact that ‘low levels’ of either are seen as ‘normal’, and people in positions of relative power are able manipulate or abuse others and keep their (or their peers’) so-called lapses of judgment quiet. Much of the improved awareness has come about through activism on social media, allowing certain voices and perspectives to be shared and resonate more widely. Of course, less enlightened opinions and online trolling proliferate and resonate, too, but the hashtags and activities around #metoo and #notallmen – as well as the more well-established #BlackLivesMatter and #EverydaySexism – have been very powerful in heightening our collective consciousness of these issues. Many people – particularly those on the receiving end – have been aware of these things for some time, and it’s not before time that the rest of us had our eyes opened further.

Universities are as complicit in this horrible mess as anywhere else. We’re not insulated from societal issues, and higher education provides endless opportunities for this hideousness to play out. It has long been recognised that social inequality often translates into educational inequality, and this creates significant problems around fairness in university access (particularly at ‘elite’ institutions). That the student body is not representative of broader society is a problem of and for education and university admissions. This non-representativeness also creates further problems for those in marginalised or minority groups when they are at university. Feeling unwelcome, out of place – or being made to feel so – in any environment is uncomfortable. It may not always occur in overt, violent acts, but is built in to everyday language and activity. Without many of us realising it, we’re hampering the ability of others to engage fully and do as well as they could. This has knock-on effects for their happiness and attainment, and then for their overall job prospects. Of course they’ll be harassed and discriminated against there, too, in applying for jobs, in the workplace, and this is no less the case if they work at universities.

Much of the harassment and discrimination in universities will operate beneath the surface, and it’s the responsibility of staff and the entire wider student body to out it and deal with it. Firstly, we all – but particularly privileged men – need to take a good look at ourselves, and basically stop being arseholes. Secondly, we need quotas. Demands for gender-balanced representation in senior management are often shouted down as being discriminatory against talent, but this is plain wrong – it unfairly discriminates for certain social groups and against talent. Asking universities to self-regulate on this clearly doesn’t work, as we can see in the ongoing imbalances around gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and disability, in elite university admissions, in the composition of the student and academic body, in pay, and so on. Someone’s going to have to lose out, but some of those should never have been winning in the first place. Grayson Perry puts this very nicely in ‘The Descent of Man’:

‘The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having his privilege taken away. For talented black, female, and working class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some…are going to have to give up their seats.’

I suppose the big hope for 2018 and beyond is that the barriers to equal participation in education and work have been dealt a significant blow, and we’re approaching genuine equality and inclusivity faster and faster. Those with an unfair advantage have a vested interest in keeping it that way; their saying that we live in a society where we’ve moved beyond sexism, classism, racism, and ableism (discriminating against those with disabilities) is patently untrue. Pretending that something doesn’t happen, or doesn’t exist, means that you’re not required to deal with it, and everything’s fine. The thing is, it’s fine for them, but not for anyone else.

 

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Two-year degrees – a no-brainer?

TEA

Two year degrees: a case of students having their cake and eating it? Do they even want to?

Lazy academics…

Yet another storm in the higher education teacup towards the end of the 2017 was the accusation that universities and academics were shying away from offering two-year undergrad degrees. Instead of laying on the traditional six semesters in three years (at £9k a year), we should be teaching an additional semester in the summer to allow graduation in two years, and do this for £11K a year in fees. The rejection of these was, it was claimed, simply academics looking to avoid change, maintain their cushy lifestyles, and short-change students.

In principle, two-year degrees look like a no-brainer on two counts:

  • Firstly, it potentially saves students a fair amount, as they’re only studying for two years at a tuition cost of £22K instead of three years at £27K. They also save the third year’s living costs, about £12K, and start earning a year earlier. If they earn £20K in the first year after graduating, this puts them something like 30K (after tax etc) ‘ahead’ of students who study over three years . This, though, assumes that students don’t need the summer to earn money, don’t want that summer holiday, and will get into decently-paid jobs when they graduates. Overall, though, the raw numbers make some sense – the loss of summer earnings could be off-set by the savings and earlier salary.

 

  • Secondly, there is – on paper – space in the calendar for this. The long summer break harks back to the time when pupils and students were required to muck in (or out) over the harvest, something no longer true for the majority. As I’ve written about recently, the time from the end of teaching in around mid-May to the start of the new year in October is fuller than some people appreciate. You still have six weeks of exams, marking, and finalising results, and you also need to review and re-/write courses, supervise postgraduates, do research, and deal with any undergrads resubmitting assignments/resitting exams in the summer. Oh, and we like going on holiday, too. There’s also a pedagogical argument, that the ‘slowness’ of the academic year allows students more time to reflect on their learning – it’s not about stuffing knowledge in, but establishing rational, evidence-informed ways of looking at the world. Also, students with less sense of, or preparation for, university life benefit from more time to get used to things and then have a better chance of progressing as far as they can.

Not such a no-brainer after all…

So, it’s not as easy as it looks. I’m also not sure about the financial realities of this for universities. Establishing the precise cost of laying on a degree is a dark art in some way. Could the additional semester each year only be delivered at £2K, rather than £4.5K (half the two-semester, £9K annual tuition cost)? Some of costs are overheads such as rent/rates and bills, library access and staff salaries. But staff in general would have to be doing more, and there’s no slack in the system for it. You either employ more academic (and administrative) staff to ensure that the teaching provision is there and ensure that research can still be done, or you take research out of the mix. For most universities, that’s not an option.

The other fly in the ointment is ‘the market’. As I’ve blathered on about elsewhere, the government assumes that (higher) education should be a market, with a range of competing service providers of varying quality and varying prices. This doesn’t really exist in the same way as some other products and services for several reasons, not least of which is that there’s no genuine evidence of a degree from one university being notably inferior/superior to another, and the cost of provision doesn’t vary. Also, there’s little evidence of much demand for two-year degrees (outside a few specialist providers, see below), so there’s not much need to supply them. Students, it seems, prefer a long summer ‘break’ to earn some money, go on holiday, and gain work experience. The exception may be engaged mature students who already have the experience and inclination to motor through more quickly, although mature students virtually vanished when tuition fees went up to £9,000. 

In practice, the consensus on two year degrees seems to be that they’re relatively unfeasible and won’t take off in the foreseeable future. They’ll by and large (still) be in professional subjects like law, and through alternative providers (i.e. specialist, non-research colleges and universities). If anything, the call and kerfuffle from politicians is probably designed to raise the idea of two-year degrees in the interests of those colleges who either already offer them or who are looking to set up in the future. They’re perhaps trying to make it easier for these ‘competitors’, particularly for-profit institutions. Whether these are a good thing depends on the eye of the beholder. The evidence from the US, where this was really opened up, is often not good – many poorly-served, working-class students students who fail to graduate and are overloaded with debt, while the colleges themselves are high and dry from pulling in state funding through student loans.

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